Earlier this year, I simultaneously read Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget and Steven B. Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good for You, and found it, as you can imagine, confounding. Lanier argues that digital technology is reductive of human intelligence and stunts innovation (because of short-sighted design which results in technological "lock-in" and subsequent "sedimentation," described as "when digital representations of ideas become causal forces in the evolution of those ideas." Meanwhile "blue skies" Johnson argues that our engagement with technology (e.g., video games) raises IQ scores and develops cognitive abilities that can’t be learned from books. I find myself firmly rooted in both camps, despite their contradictory arguments. My work as an artist and curator takes full advantage of the speed and efficiency provided by the internet’s "hive mind," but I am also acutely aware of the limitations and lightweight quality of research and communication that takes place exclusively online. This topic has been poured over in books like The Shallows by Nicholas G. Carr and a tsunami of newspaper and magazine stories about how the internet is making us stupid, distracted, fragmented, smarter, more productive, and friendlier.
The unified question, regardless of position is "How is technology conditioning the way we think and the actions we take?" In his latest stroke of genius, Program or Be Programmed, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff offers both an assessment and a prescription: be aware of the technology you use, and in the best case scenario, contribute to the creation of that technology (i.e., learn to program). (Incidentally, I adore Rushkoff all the more for independently publishing this book for reasons he outlines here.) According to Rushkoff, a lack of awareness of the technological tools that shape your daily activites is akin to knowing nothing about the combustion engine inside your vehicle, and look what kind of trouble that has gotten us into. Rushkoff writes:
Okay, you say, so why don’t we just make sure there are a few students interested in this highly specialized area of coding so that we can keep up militarily and economically with everyone else? Just because a few of us need to know how to program, surely that doesn’t mean we all need to know programming does it? We all know how to drive our cars, yet few of us know how our automobiles work, right?True enough, but look where that’s gotten us: We spend an hour or two of what used to be free time operating a dangerous two-ton machine and, on average a full workday each week paying to own and maintain it. Throughout the twentieth century, we remained blissfully ignorant of the real biases of automotive transportation. We approached our cars as consumers, through ads, rather than as engineers or, better, civic planners. We gladly surrendered our public streetcars to private automobiles, unaware of the real expenses involved. We surrendered our highway policy to a former General Motors chief, who became secretary of defense primarily for the purpose of making public roads suitable for private cards and spending public money on a highway system. We surrendered city and town life for the commuting suburbs, unaware that the bias of the automobile was to separate home for work. As a result, we couldn’t see that our national landscape was being altered to manufacture dependence on the automobile. We also missed the possibility that these vehicles could make the earth’s atmosphere unfit for human life, or that we would one day be fighting wars primarily to maintain the flow of oil required to keep them running.
While I heartily agree with Rushkoff’s above assessment, I don’t think programming is the magic salve to avert a similar technological clusterf*ck. Some of us are too old to start learning a new language, and some of us have other related and relevant work to do. Rather, the answer is to become more knowledgeable of the technology we use, and conversant and active in policy, especially with regard to digital rights and freedoms. However, I do believe that programming is one of the most powerful skill sets of the 21st Century, as evidenced by the growing number of programmer multi-millionaires under 30, and the ability of a hacker website like Wikileaks to disrupt international diplomacy, simply by accessing information and making it public. I’m getting my children enrolled in basic programming yesterday.